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A Conversation with Jacob Wanyama from African LIFE Network

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

In this regular series, we profile advisors to the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we feature Jacob Wanyama, coordinator with the African LIFE Network.

Name: Jacob Wanyama

Affiliation: African LIFE Network

Location: Nairobi, Kenya

Bio: Jacob Wanyama is a coordinator with the African LIFE Network in Kenya, an organization that works to increase rights for pastoralist communities. He has been working for pastoralist peoples for nearly two decades with organizations such as Practical Action (formerly ITDG) and Veternaires Sans Frontiers (VSF).

What is the nature of the problem that you and the LIFE Network are dealing with in pastoralist communities? Pastoralists mostly depend on producing livestock. These communities have produced certain breeds for centuries. These animals are suited to the environment and they are critical to the cultural and economic survival of the pastoralists in these harsh environments. But because of conflict, drought, and other environmental problems in the area, it is becoming harder for pastoralists to maintain their way of life. There is a lack of services and infrastructure in these communities. They are very low on the opportunity ladder, and in Kenya especially the pastoralist communities don’t get government services or support.

Another problem is that government programs in these areas have often discouraged or destroyed what communities have been doing. Because of the need to produce food quickly, many governments have promoted replacing indigenous breeds that are considered to be inferior because they don’t produce a lot of meat. The government has encouraged pastoralists to breed local breeds with exotic breeds or to just replace the local breed. The problem is that the new breed is not used to the region. This has gone on for many years, so now many indigenous breeds are disappearing. The world is losing roughly one livestock breed every week.

This is the case in many areas where livestock are kept. In Africa, India, Mongolia, pastoralists are not given a chance to maintain their breeds of indigenous livestock, and therefore the world is losing many sources of animal genetic diversity. These animals are the only way of using these very dry and harsh areas, which otherwise could not support communities. So, many pastoralists are giving up their way of life. They can’t feed their families anymore.

What are some of the grassroots strategies the LIFE Network has used to help these communities? We try to create awareness among pastoralists. They have been getting misinformation and discouragement from the government. So we spend time with them and tell them, “what you have and what you had is very valuable. You are providing an important service not just to yourself but to the world. You have the right to demand recognition.” We also tell them that they should base decisions about what types of livestock they breed on knowledge. We need to strengthen these communities and give them the tools to make their own decisions. We also assist pastoralists in documenting what they have and then we work with lawyers to formulate statements that demand government development in their communities.

How do you attract national or international attention to these issues? We try to raise this issue with different governments. We’ve been able to speak to the governments of Kenya, Botswana, and Uganda. These governments, though, don’t seem to understand the unique position of the pastoralists and where they need to be. Some countries have moved a step forward, though. Kenya, Uganda, and India have developed institutions and ministries that are mandated to address pastoralists. But that has not meant that things have changed in terms of food and conservation. These governments are still focused on settled people. In Tanzania, the situation is even worse. The Tanzanian government says that it is difficult to provide services to pastoralists, since they move around so much, and encourages pastoralists to settle. But, if you settle them and reduce the number of livestock they have, you have a situation in which pastoralists have nothing to do. A lot of them end up destitute.

But we look for ways to ensure that people’s rights are assured. We want to facilitate the market for livestock keepers and figure out how to document their breeds as a way of making the governments pay attention. One of the things communities need to do is set up their rules and demands to their countries and the international community. They need to say what action they think is appropriate for these communities to be respected.

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